Ethics Quiz: Grade The Misbehaving Celebrities!

Our subjects:

Oh,'re such a scream!

Oh, Bill…you’re such a scream!

Bill Maher, bad boy comic, political satirist and host of HBO’s “Real Time”

Maher’s fans

Ron Futrelle, former sportscaster and Las Vegas media personality

Sarah Palin, former governor, VP candidate, Fox commentator and conservative icon

All clashed over a joke made by Maher during a stand-up gig, and your challenge is to decide who gets the lowest ethics grade. Here’s what happened: Futrelle was in the audience for Maher’s show in  Las Vegas. Maher made a joke about Palin’s son, Trig, who has Down Syndrome. According to Futrelle, the joke  upset him, as well as the fact that the audience appeared to enjoy Maher’s using Palin’s innocent and mentally challenged child as a comedy topic, and laughed heartily. Futrelle began heckling Maher, eventually prompting an annoyed audience member to remind him that he was not the attraction, and suggest that he shut his gob. Futrelle persisted, and when confronted by security, left.

Through Futrelle’s blog’s account of his experience, Brietbart and the miracle of social media, Mama Grizzly Palin learned that her young son had been (again) converted into joke-fodder, and tweeted her reaction to Maher:

“Hey bully, on behalf of all kids whom you hatefully mock in order to make yourself feel big, I hope one flattens your lily white wimpy a#*.”

Our grading scale:

Exemplary ethical conduct.

Ethical and appropriate conduct that could have been better executed.

C  Acceptable conduct according to reasonable social norms

D Unethical conduct

Despicable conduct

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is, therefore, to accept this challenge:

Give Maher, Maher’s audience, Futrelle and Palin their ethics grades.

Here are mine.

Bill Maher. Grade: C-  I find Maher angry, repugnant, nowhere near as smart as he obviously thinks he is and inexcusably unfunny; he’s obviously clever. He is, however, a successful professional comedian, and his job is to make people laugh—not me, not Ron Futrelle, not Trig, and not Sarah Palin. The incident occurred in a private club, not on HBO. If Bill Maher can get his paying audience to laugh by ridiculing an innocent little boy as an extension of his famous mother—it really isn’t any worse to do this to a special needs child—he’s within his profession’s ethics code, which pretty much consists of  “Anything for a laugh.” I don’t accept the position that there are topics, like mental retardation, or words, like “retard,” that should be taboo in an entertainment context. It’s silly to call Maher a bully: who was he bullying? Trig doesn’t care what Bill say about him. I would not argue vociferously against the contention that Maher, in his tiny way, was adding to the courseness and hatefulness that infect our society and culture with these kinds of jokes, and that’s where the minus comes from. On the other hand, Maher has paying customers to entertain, and if you go to see Bill Maher, you go to see a nasty, vulgar, misogynist comic who says outrageous things, especially about Republicans. He delivered.

Maher’s Audience. Grade: C.  They laughed. They wanted to laugh, and came to the show to laugh. What one laughs at may offer clues to one’s underlying character, but this was an appropriate place to do it. Bill’s fans may overwhelmingly be jerks, but they get a pass.

Ron Futrelle. Grade: D+ Futrelle gets his plus for raising an ethics issue for wider discussion. He gets the D because the audience member was right: it was rude and unfair to interfere with Maher’s performance, to the paying spectators as well as Maher. Futrelle writes that comedians often like bantering with hecklers, which is true but misleading. Comedians like this the same way that actors “like” having to deal with dropped lines and missing props in a live performance: it’s a challenge, they get to prove their professional skills, and it sometimes leads to a better show. No comedian or actor in his right mind prefers unplanned disturbances to the show they have rehearsed. If Maher thought Futrelle’s interjections would help him entertain the rubes, he would have requested harassment.

Sarah Palin. Grade D+ She ekes out her plus by proactively standing up for her son: I can’t criticize any mother for that. The “flattens your lily white wimpy a#*” comment, however (What could a#* mean, I wonder?) stoops to Maher’s level, and Palin, as a public figure who ran on a national ticket and has many admirers, is not on Maher’s level, and has an obligation to eschew vulgarity, incivility, name-calling, and endorsements, even in jest, of violence as a proper response to mere words. She is also, as she often is, irresponsible with her rhetoric. Too many incursions on free speech, in schools and elsewhere, are being championed because the term” bullying” is being misapplied to conduct that isn’t bullying at all, but just harsh words. What Maher said may have been mean, but it is not bullying, and Palin doesn’t protect the Bill of Rights she hold so dear by assisting the speech censors who are exploiting the anti-bullying obsession for everything it’s worth.


Pointer: Alexander Cheezem

Sources: Huffington Post, Ron Futrelle, Las Vegas Review-Journal

52 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Grade The Misbehaving Celebrities!

  1. “I find Maher angry, repugnant, nowhere near as smart as he obviously thinks he is and inexcusably unfunny;” Agreed. Thanks.

    “if you go to see Bill Maher, you go to see a nasty, vulgar, misogynist comic who says outrageous things, especially about Republicans.” Agreed. Thanks.

    I just wish Bill Maher weren’t an iconic hero of the Left and considered an intellectual. My biggest fear is Maher will win a Senate seat and then we’ll have a smirky, snide, superior, know-it-all comedian in the Senate. Wait a minute…

  2. Would Palin’s grade go up in your mind if she’d crafted something along the lines of:

    “Mr Hume:

    I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”

    It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

    Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

    Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.


  3. Agree with your grading, except would have graded Ron Futrelle the same as the other two.

    Don’t know who Ron is except that he is probably a big fish in little Las Vegas’ media market, so he saw an opportunity to boost his Q rating in his home town. Is that really any more unethical than Mahrer using the child of Palin for fodder?

    All 3 of them are entertainers paid to appeal to the lowest common denominator…. their audience.

  4. Bill Maher: F – I’m sorry, but if a comedian was using the n-word in his jokes, there wouldn’t be the level of allowance Maher gets for using the r-word.

    Maher’s fans: D+ – For supporting, with laughter, Maher’s joke.

    Ron Futrelle: B – Yes, he shouldn’t have heckled Maher, but if a comedian were telling jokes using the n-word, he’d be a hero. On balance, his conduct was ethical.

    Sarah Palin: B – Maher’s joke is not the first time that comedians on the left have used her son’s disability as a punchline – and used the r-word as well. Google Louis C.K. and why he lost a gig in DC. I’m amazed she hasn’t done something like this – or gone Mama Grizzly on one of those jerks sooner.

    • Instead of acting like a justifiably insulted mother, her response reminds us all of why she’s no longer a candidate for anything.

    • Are you pretending that Maher said “nigger,” or just think the “retard” and “nigger” are equivilent? I sure don’t. One is a racial slur that conveys extraneous information when used by a white comic: “I don’t like/respect/care about black people.” That’s a despicable sentiment, particularly so in the context of US history, and thus qualifies as hurtful speech.

      “Retard” is an insensitive term that reflects a previously accepted description, “mentally retarded.” Unlike nigger, it was once used by people with no animus toward the mentally-challenged whatsoever. It is still in the class of harsh words that can be tools of humor because they shock without necessarily doing deeper damage.

      If Maher said “nigger,” his audience wouldn’t have laughed, and he would have risked alienating them completely.

      • This is interesting. I see this happening repeatedly in the comments to your posts, Jack. People differ on their evaluation of the underlying behavior of which you speak. One finds it reprehensible, the other doesn’t. Then they each proceed from their respective starting points to draw their ethical conclusions. One is deemed correct, the other wrong. And vice versa. It just strikes me as, I’m not sure, arbitrary? Subjective? Not terribly precise?

        Anyone? Anyone?

        • That’s an unwarranted generalization, especially here. In this critique of an answer, my problem is with the reasoning and way of getting there, which is, in fact, wrong. “It would have been unethical if he had made a nigger joke!” is not an argument. He didn’t It’s not the same thing. I have to call someone on that. What’s “unprecise about it”?

          One “is deemed” correct? I already explained my analysis, and I’m interested in how someone reaches a different conclusion. There are several legitimate arguments I could see being supported, but I insist on valid ethiacl analysis that is free of bias and rationalizations, or illogical analogies, like the “retard”/ “nigger” example.

          • But, isn’t your analysis premised on your reading of the meaning of “retard.” I take you to say using it is acceptable because it used to be used in conjunction with “mentally retarded.” Fair enough. But don’t terms undergo change in the vernacular? For example, to this day, I always associate the term “sucks” with “it sucks a big one” or “suck my dick,” each fairly nasty little sayings. Now, “suck” seems to be socially acceptable and washed of any misogynistic or homophobic tinge (but still not to me). Isn’t it possible that “retard” has gone through the same transformation from a less to a more virulent meaning or connotation? And, for the sake of argument, if it has, doesn’t that undercut some of your analysis?

            • No, I don’t think so. Yes, it’s offensive, and like other words, like bitch, Maher’s fave, “cunt”, fag, even “midget,” groups have declared their opposition to them giving the words an intentional aura of defiance and/or willful disobedience to societal norms. Using one of these words is no different from George Carlin or Lenny Bruce using “fuck” in their day. Nigger is worse. I don’t like the idea of taboo words, but it’s pretty close to a taboo—look what happened to Michael Richards. The fewer taboo words we have, the better.

              • Thanks, Jack, you have inspired me henceforth to call Bill Maher a “palate,” consistent with how I picture his rendered appearance from between his upper lip and his upper trachea (as I would like to personally render it). Maybe Trig can become famous yet, for making palate jokes.

  5. I fail them both. Even when I was 12, parrying schoolyard insults, someone’s family was off-limits to the point where , but Futrelle knew what he was getting into.

  6. Maher – F. It’s ok to mock someone if they’ll never know about it? If it doesn’t hurt their feelings? It’s true, this was a private assembly, not HBO – but he has said similar things before on HBO, and in other venues. He’s attacking a public figure by mocking her innocent child for a condition completely beyond his control. Some forms of attack are inexcusable – I don’t care for the president at all, but if one of his daughters had a bad leg, it would be beyong the pale to get at him by calling her a gimp or cripple. Trig may not be hurt by the attack, but his mother certainly was, and should be.

    His audience – C- Minus only because sadly, our society does not seem to know that it should be inexcusable to deride the innocent. If a kids is tripped in the hall, people will still laugh. They shouldn’t, but they do.

    Futrelle – B- There were better ways for him to show his discomfort – like getting up and walking out. Still, I don’t know that that would have expressed exactly how strongly he felt about it, not chided the others for their behavior strongly. It would have been more respectful, but I don’t know that they deserve respect.

    Palin – B – As a public figure, I do have to ding her for decending to the level she did. However, I can completely understand why she did, and admire her restraint. Her son is not a public figure, and is a fast, easy, cheap way to seriously attack her visciously. It’s a cheap shot at her at the expense of someone she loves and is tasked with protecting. Good on her for doing that. My response would have gotten me arrested. Not very ethical of me, but ethics be damned if you come at me using my kids – that’s war.

  7. I’m more lenient with everyone except Futrell. I’d give him a solid D based on your account, but after reading the linked article I’d append a minus to that. The heckling was unethical and inconsiderate. He only wins points for calling attention to a sensitive topic if we consider his blog post separately. The act of heckling doesn’t become more ethical because someone plans to shift their commentary into the appropriate medium later on. Instead, Futrell loses points from me for his remarks after the fact. First, he denies that what he did was heckling, which is sort of a Dumbo in your terminology. Second, he crams two rationalizations into one short comment: “I went on an LDS mission to Ireland. I know heckling.” In other words, “It could have been worse, and besides, I have evidence of moral character which more than makes up for my wrong actions.” Finally, he does something that I find downright infuriating: He takes the appropriate response to his unethical behavior as evidence of character flaws in the people towards whom he was acting unethical. “I have found out one thing. The left doesn’t like to be confronted.” I’m pretty sure nobody likes being confronted, in inappropriate circumstances, by jerks. If I was just judging Futrell on his capacity for learning from his mistakes, he’d definitely fail.

    I’d move Maher and his audience each up a tick, with the caveat that without actually hearing the joke in question, it’s tough to judge the ethics of the message. I give Maher the benefit of the doubt and assume that his joke was appropriate to the venue, but probably tasteless and unnecessary. Call it a C-plus.

    I’m loath to give an ethical grade to someone’s sense of humor if they laugh at tasteless jokes. I’m also biased because I often enjoy tasteless jokes. B-minus, I guess. However, I think the individual audience member who confronted Futrell deserves note. He gets an A from me on the basis of the given reports. He used polite phrasing (of course, I don’t know about the tone) to try to get Futrell to stand down, and when that didn’t work he went immediately to security. One might expect much worse at a comedy show with a celebrity headliner.

    Finally, I’d bump Sarah Palin up an entire letter grade, to C+. The response itself was perfectly appropriate, the rhetoric quite the opposite. Split the difference.

        • Yes, the audience member who requested to enjoy the show in peace and called security gets a star. The heckler could have objected to the management, asked for money back, done a blog or petition onlone or whatever if he wanted to change the acceptability of mocking like that. Ms Palin is mocked for what she does. But she should not be mocked because of what she was born with or without. It’s only cruelty to mock what can’t be changed.

          • There is simply no harm in mocking anyone in a private setting. Anyone is free to mock me in a club or in their home—and I know you all do, I know it. You think you can fool me? I know you all get together, and laugh, and criticize!!! Oh yes! I’m on to all of you, snickering and imitating my raspy voice, my lisp, my tendency to confuse M’s with H’s, my fear of balloons, toes, flies and okra! You mock, and you mock, and mock! I have feelings! I bleed!

            Sorry, got off on a tangent there…

  8. Speaking of fodder for comedy, I think it’s interesting that there are often protected species in the extreme ie. a kid with down’s syndrome, but a person with an IQ of, say, 80 is fair game.

  9. Bill Maher: F
    He’s a PIG.
    Minor kids should be off limits, PERIOD.
    He’s supposed to be a professional comedian. If he can’t think of something else to talk about, he should go home.

    The audience: E
    Since when is a little boy with Down Syndrome funny?
    Do they laugh at all handicapped kids or only the ones with Conservative parents?
    Is the little girl who just got donor lungs funny?

    Heckler: D
    Rude, inconsiderate to others.

    Sarah Palin: D
    Should have penned a more dignified response.

    As far as calling someone a retard – that word is rapidly becoming the new nigger.
    If it is not as bad now, it is going to be very soon.
    Very offensive to some people.

    • Succinct and very good. I have to rate your grading better than Aaron’s.

      I’d give the audience (minus Futrell) a G, but that’s just my genocidal way.

  10. I should add:

    I’ve been reading the collected short fiction of Flannery O’Connor.
    For those that don’t know, she was a writer from Savannah, GA, who did most of her work from the late 40s to mid 60s (she died of Lupus at age 39).
    The entirety of the text is loaded with the word nigger.
    That word didn’t always have the same offending factor as today.

      • No. F. O’C (from Millidgeville, not Savannah) was depicting white Southerners of the ’50s and ’60s and their language. Anyone who’d call her a racist is as wrong as anyone who’d call William Faulkner a racist. But times have changed. “Nigger” is justifiably verboten for white people. It has been since the late ’60s. Times change. Words change. I just wish black people would stop using “nigger” too.

  11. For what it’s worth, I think your grades, and reasoning, are right on. A very good example of ethical reasoning, IMHO, improved even more by your interactions on the comments (and kudos for the Truman reference, well-thought of).

  12. I agree with the exception of Palin, who gets a C + her reaction as a parent is totally within the social norm, she didn’t threaten she simply expressed her feelings.

  13. “So you’d ban her work or Bowdlerize it today, since today its offensive?”
    It’s not offensive to a reader who recognizes that the word was commonly used during that time period and esp in the south.
    I’m not offended by it and I wouldn’t ban any writer.
    I mentioned it because during that time in history, the word nigger was less offensive to the general public than it is today.
    I think “retard” is going the same rote.

  14. . Anyone who’d call her a racist is as wrong as anyone who’d call William Faulkner a racist. But times have changed. “Nigger” is justifiably verboten for white people. It has been since the late ’60s. Times change. Words change. I just wish black people would stop using “nigger” too.
    I hope you don’t think I was calling F.O. a racist.
    I was making the point that times change. 🙂

    Anyway, she is an excellent writer of the short story and I am enjoying her work immensely.

  15. Palin has many fans who are willing to stand up for her in her absence as was evidenced by this story. That said, I would give her an even lower grade (a pure D or even an F) for the simple reason that her comment seems to invite a violent act in retribution for spoken words. She should know full well that many of her faithful followers would love nothing more than to fulfil her wishes and by flattening Mr. Maher. Can you imagine cry of outrage that would be heard across the land if Obama — OK I realize I’m not exactly comparing apples to apples here — had said anything remotely like what Palin did?

    • You’re right, you’re not. And to say that there is any genuine violence threatened or invited by the tweet is really pushing it. It’s undignified and uncivil, that’s all.

      • “…flattens your lily white wimpy ass” Personally, I read that to mean flatten as in crush, squash or trample. I’m not prone to violence yet I immediately interpreted her statement as a hope for physical harm to come to Mr Maher.

        That said, the flattening could have been read in a figurative sense, but I highly doubt that the those upset by Mr Maher’s jokes will read it that way.

        What was your read of “flattens your lily white wimpy ass”? Did she mean something else?

        • No, it meant, if vaguely, kick your ass. And when people say that, especially in a tweet to a celebrity, it is no more or less than saying”you’re an asshole,” which would have been just as objectionable or Palin. The idea that Palin could call upon a hoard of Down Syndrome kids to attack Bill Maher seems like a bad SNL skit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.